As usual when caving in Slovakia the journey to the cave entrance proves to be the most demanding. When this is coupled with no car, distance to cave area from work place as 350 kms, mid-winter February and access at 1554 metres above sea level then its not just a digging trip but a mini expedition. The journey commenced after a Thursday of meetings at 24.00 with the sleeper from Bratislava to Poprad, stopping at stations in between. Peter Magdolen and Kate Hadriova of Speleo Club Bratislava shared the couchette. Sleep was intermittent.
We, or I should say I tumbled out of the train at 04.45 onto the compressed snow and iced rail tracks following a rucsac that was determined to topple me. I quickly learnt to balance in air at -5 degrees and on a rutted frozen surface. A wooden bench in the station concourse provided hard comfort until a short walk to the bus station to catch the first bus into the mountains at 06.00. This deposited us at Javorina two hours later. In the bus shelter we woke L'ubo Sliva who had hitched rides from northern Slovakia through Poland the previous day. The local school children surmised he was a homeless person. We took our gear to our rented self contained flat within a private house. Here we ate some breakfast and changed into caving clothes for the long walk into the mountains.
The first obstacle was to pass the forest rangers ( this is part of the national park of the High Tatras and is closed during the winter to tourists). Our credentials as cavers were noted and we were told it was at our own risk that we entered the region. The first section of the walk was on snow packed forest tracks hardened by horse drawn logging traffic. This then deteriorated into rough forest littered with broken trees and scattered branches in snow up to the thighs. For the first time I was use trekking sticks and these were very useful on the slippery snow. They allowed me to keep up with the others who had far more experience of walking in these conditions.
After about 8 Kms of climbing 200 metres our route was up through trees on a 75 degree slope. This last 200 metres of height gain taxed us all on the steep slopes, especially the last section below the cave entrance. Here the slope was free of trees, but the 800 mm deep snow lay on long grass and ice axes would have been of great use. My trekking sticks were a mixed blessing; they helped but they were never the right length as the slope was crossed diagonally, first in one direction and then the other. At last, after three and a half hours we reached the entrance. Water, a mouthful of bread and cheese and into the cave with digging tools, including a long handled 5kg sledge hammer.
The Kmenne oci cave was the top level of a three cave system. Two other caves were below which had been connected together, but not to this upper series. The objective was to try and get the connection to the lower system. First we had to clear a tight constriction only passable by small people into the lower reaches. Hammers and chisels and a hauled bucket cleared this in an hour, allowing us bigger mortals to pass into the previously discovered passages of about 50 metres length and 20 metres depth. Previous exploration had reached a small chamber full of large rocks with a draught coming from the deepest end.
The sledge hammer came into play but could not break the rocks as the space was too confined to get a good swing. We therefore created steps and platforms to manhandle the rocks up and out of the way and to wedge them in precarious ' Stay there!' positions. Two hours of work exposed a hanging rock with a narrow ( too narrow for a helmet on the head to pass through) vertical gap giving access to its underside. Wriggles and crawls led into a tight rift after 20 metres. Too tight for entry and requiring more vigorous ( chemical) persuasion at a later date, but still draughting. The Slovaks then started to survey this section back up to original constriction. This subsequently showed that the rift was heading in a good direction and about 20 metres in height and 30 metres in distance away from the lower cave. I left the Slovaks to their labourious surveying techniques and made my way out.
Dusk was coming down when I dropped down off the fixed rope at the cliff entrance. The 150 metre snow slope swept away into the darkening tree line below. I hoisted rucsac, attached trek stick wrist loops and attempted to descend with control and grace this 75 degree slope in our previous steps. I slipped and stumbled, prodding with the sticks to stay upright. Went down a metre or two, regained a vertical stance but then fell back into the slope again. Cutting across diagonally I managed to lose about 20 metres in height with some decorum. My TSA oversuit offered no friction on the snow surface. You know what's coming next!.
Off I went, feet first, rolling from side to side and gathering speed. A line of bushes came up, 'Ah, something to hold onto'. But I swept straight through them and bounced down a small drop. The long trek sticks flayed the air and swiped the snow as a golfers club. Faster and faster I travelled with the trees getting far too close. I got onto my stomach and grabbed one stick with both hands and managed to get a purchase into the snow . A crumpled panting stop just before a two metre drape regained composure to see that I had stopped at the point of our initial entry onto the snow slope: just right. I kidded myself this was a planned. I stood up, shakily ,and discovered that the stick used to arrest my slide was bent almost double from resisting my momentum. It was an able but disposable substitute for an ice axe. I wobbled off into the trees and stumbled through the broken branches, fallen trunks, pockets of snow and groped into the gloom with now and again a shifty moon giving some light and shadow to show the way. Two hours later, with frozen outer clothes, I arrived back at our accommodation. The others arrived three hours later after surveying the cave and not having the advantage of a speedy descent down the mountain.
From journey start to arrival at the flat was a twenty hour trip with just three hours sleep in the previous 36 hours. For the others in the group this was extended by three hours.
The following day , a Saturday, was given over the caving politics. Its the same the world over. There is a dispute over who is allowed to explore where. The local clubs, who have representation on the national parks management committee wish to restrict access only to local cavers. We from Bratislava are seen as interlopers. Even though the Bratislava club has a permit to explore one or two caves in the region this is resisted by the chairman of the local area clubs. A robust discussion took place in the bar, with of course alcohol as a lubricator, but to little avail. The reason given for the restriction was that the Chairman wanted to ' Save the exploration of the caves for the next generation of local cavers.' The discussion continues.
On Sunday, in the middle of a snow storm we travelled back to Bratislava via bus and train. The train was another endurance test as there are no on board refreshment facilities for the five hour journey, but our First Class rail tickets ( at very low relative cost compared to the UK) guaranteed a seat where many passengers had to stand for much of the way. In Slovakia the caving is not to difficult: its getting there that saps the energy.